Justice in a time of moral certainty

The year was 1986.  A new government had come to power following the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship through a peaceful revolution. So many lives had been lost or destroyed, and so much public wealth wasted and stolen, in the preceding dark years. The time for reckoning and settling scores had finally come.

One of the urgent concerns of government was to prevent the dissipation of assets known to belong to the Marcoses and their cronies.  Most of them fled abroad while Edsa I was unfolding. The revolutionary government promptly sequestered their properties and filed cases against them and the underlings who assisted them during their plunderous rule of the country.

Sixteen years have quickly passed.  The nation has had four governments after Marcos. Some of the major properties that the government took over in 1986 remain under sequestration, while many have been sold at bargain prices after being stripped and mismanaged by a succession of unaccountable government fiscal agents.  Some valuable objects are reported missing.

Most of the cases filed against the Marcoses and their cronies are unresolved to this day.  Some cronies testified against the Marcoses in exchange for immunity against prosecution, leaving their coaccused, the small bureaucrats, to twist in the wind.  Yet no Marcos is in jail.  The heirs of the late dictator continue to claim hundreds of millions of dollars locked in Swiss accounts, though they have not explained how they earned this fabulous amount of money and why they are entitled to it.

The government’s ability to win its cases has been dismal.  It is enough to make one rethink the moral ground on which people power proudly stood in 1986.

Last May 16, 2002, the Sandiganbayan ruled on a case that had begged for resolution for the past 16 years.  This was the last of the cases filed by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) in connection with the 1985 sale of the Pantranco bus company, then owned by the Philippine National Bank (PNB) and the National Investment & Development Corporation (NIDC), to a firm suspected to be a front for Marcos son-in-law, Greggy Araneta.  The court ruled that the accused Jose Crisanto, Jr., former Exec. Vice President and General Manager of Pantranco, and Fernando Balatbat, were not only innocent, but that all the charges filed against them were without basis.

The PCGG had charged them with conspiring with some PNB officials and private individuals to sell the state-owned Pantranco assets to an undercapitalized firm believed to be owned by a presidential son-in-law in a manner that was irregular and grossly disadvantageous to the government.  The government never proved its case.  Its own witnesses and documents showed that the transaction was approved and authorized by the boards of the PNB, NIDC, and Pantranco itself, that the purchase price was the highest offer received, and that the downpayment and first installment were paid on schedule.

Neither was the involvement of Greggy Araneta in the sale ever substantiated.  The case against him was dismissed in 2001.  Earlier, in 1994, two relatively junior officials from the PNB who had been singled out for prosecution – Dominador H. Lopez, Jr. and Atty. Ramon F. Aviado, Jr. – were acquitted without having to present testimonies or evidence in their favor.  The Sandiganbayan noted that they were victims of selective prosecution.  “Deliberately or otherwise, certain public officials… were segregated for investigation and prosecution, leaving unscathed and immune other high-placed personalities.”

Another PNB official, former Executive Vice President Fernando Maramag, Jr., died in the course of the trial.  The man was about to retire in 1986 when the case was filed. He was unable to collect his retirement pension, and more important, to have the satisfaction of being declared innocent.

Atty. Crisanto described to me the distinct sensation of being personally vindicated.  “I am 78 but I took care of myself.  I refused to accept the liberation promised by death.  I wanted to be alive when I am finally pronounced innocent.  My daily prayers always included a plea for my acquittal.  I laughed inside the other day when unconsciously I said the same prayers.”

Crisanto had been a transportation man for over 40 years, setting up Nicaragua’s mass transport system as an expert for the World Bank in the early ‘80s.  No one perhaps knows the land transportation industry in our country better than this man. If he had not been charged, he could easily have been transportation minister.  Instead he had to go back to earning a living as a notary public after he was charged.  He could not get a better job while a criminal case was pending against him.

Dominador Lopez, a UP graduate, left a very promising career as a banker.  He was VP of the Management Assistance & Special Services department at PNB at the time.  He had risen from the ranks, starting out as a file clerk.  He had to resign.  Ramon Aviado, a bar topnotcher, was PNB Asst. Chief Legal Counsel in 1986.  He too had to resign.

A big chunk of these men’s lives was unjustly taken away from them. The charges against them were totally without basis. The real target was Greggy Araneta.  A very senior official of PNB, unable to sleep with a lie, executed an affidavit in 1995 that nullified nearly everything he had attested to in the1986 charges. But justice did not come easy for the accused.  They had to wait until the courts could free themselves from the moral certitude of Edsa, so as to render justice to those who were too small to protect themselves from arbitrary prosecution.